I’m not a big fan of sporting metaphors in business. They’re basically meta-metaphors for war. And the hockey stick one took me a long time to get my head around because of other cultural differences: in the UK, hockey is a grass-based sport with a stick that has a hook on the end. In North America it’s a game played on ice, and the stick is shaped quite differently.
The metaphor itself is a visual one – to represent an exponential growth curve. Exponential growth is something that we humans find quite difficult to get our heads around. If something is, say, doubling on a regular basis it spends a lot of time dawdling along, and then you see “sudden” explosive growth. Like an ice hockey stick.
The tech industry gets all excited about hockey stick growth – whether Moore’s Law of processing power, numbers of people using a social network, or whatever. But the hockey stick is flawed.
Exponential growth is actually quite common, for a period. The issue is that we struggle to understand it, and understand that it usually comes to an end. It’s not a hockey stick, it’s an “S” curve. Eventually growth plateaus.
If there wasn’t exponential growth, none of us would exist. The initial cell division that happens when sperm meets egg, doubling in cells at rapid pace, is exponential. But if it didn’t plateau, we’d all be bigger than the universe which, unless you’ve got a particularly well developed ego, isn’t possible.
So whenever you see a hockey stick, stick another end on the top. Because it’s inevitable that’s how it will eventually look.